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May 8, 2012

Jim Bailey: Longtime relationship of Erskine, Wilson spoke volumes

ANDERSON, Ind. — They were, in the words of Carl Erskine, “two skinny kids from the west side of Anderson, two dirty kids trying to do the right thing.”

Saturday they again shared the spotlight at Anderson University’s 94th commencement. Erskine was the principal speaker and Johnny Wilson received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree. Erskine, the famed Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher and now retired bank executive, previously received an honorary doctor of laws degree from AU in 1984.

“To get this honor here today is probably the greatest honor I will receive,” Wilson told the crowd after receiving his hood.

Erskine remarked about the leap society has made in the more than six decades since they were teammates at Anderson High School. Two events stood out.

Wilson, who earned 11 letters at AU (then Anderson College) in four sports during his undergraduate days, arguably was a better all-around athlete. But while he was barnstorming around the country playing baseball in the Negro American League and basketball for the Harlem Globetrotters, Erskine was earning a major-league salary with the Dodgers and setting a World Series strikeout record.

But even then change in a segregated sports system was in the works. A decade before Martin Luther King Jr. came on the scene, the Dodgers hired Jackie Robinson and broke the color barrier in the major leagues.

Erskine explained that his relationship with Wilson had prepared him for the phenomenon. “Johnny and I played together,” he told the graduates. “It was not a different deal. I never made much of race relations; Johnny taught me to be color blind.”

That has been illustrated in a story Erskine has told on other occasions of a time the Dodger wives were waiting for their husbands after a game. When Carl joined Betty, they struck up a conversation with Robinson’s wife, who was awaiting Jackie’s emergence. Subsequently Robinson formally thanked Carl for being so cordial to his wife, a cross-racial courtesy not that common in the 1950s. “I told him not to thank me for a normal courtesy,” Erskine has said. “It was no big deal to me.”

Ironically, his relationship experiences may also have prepared him for another life situation: the 1960 birth of their son Jimmy, who has Down syndrome.

“We were counseled to put him away and get on with our life,” Erskine told the grads. “Betty says, ‘Are you kidding?’”

Erskine elaborated on changes in attitude since that time, including the Special Olympics program, which AU sponsors locally. “Special Olympics exposed some emotions we didn’t know we had,” Erskine commented.

He held up his World Series ring. And just as proudly he displayed one of Jimmy’s Special Olympics medals. “Which could be better?” he asked.

“We are enriching our society to give everybody a chance,” Erskine summarized. “The difference is in what society has done. The real question is, are you getting the most out of what you’ve been given?”

Jim Bailey’s column appears on Wednesday. He can be reached by email at jameshenrybailey@earthlink.net.

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